Laugh Lessons

What a buttoned-down banking town (that’s us) can learn from a misunderstood art form (that’s improv)

Keli Semelsberger still has the letter her father sent thirteen years ago along with a check to pay for her first improv classes.

“He wrote ‘Here’s the money…Save all the good jokes for me.’ See? Even he didn’t know what it was about. Nobody has a clue.”

Semelsberger will soon celebrate five years of producing improvisational theater in Charlotte. On July 7, 2001, she and a group of local players she trained put on their first show, and, although the cast has changed many times over, Extreme Improv has performed continuously since then.

“And yet,” says Semelsberger, “we are still struggling. In Chicago, by now we’d have sell-out shows. Charlotte doesn’t know anything about improv.”

Despite the popularity of television shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, most people think of improv as a series of stand-up routines or the kind of sketch comedy made so famous by Saturday Night Live. Improv—when it works—is funny. But this unique and relatively young art offers more than a good guffaw. Improv is as much a lesson in living as it is a form of entertainment, and even a city as slick and successful as Charlotte can learn from the comedy form that came out of the slums of Chicago.

If you weren’t looking for it, you’d never find the Charlotte Comedy Theater. Hidden in the corner of a small business strip on Central Avenue, Extreme Improv’s fourth and newest home is the former pool room at Joe’s Raw Bar. The door and windows are painted red and purple; inside, the walls are burgundy and blue. At one end of the small, rectangular room is a stage flanked by two wooden restaurant booths where, sometimes, a large plush pink fish stares at the audience with bugged out eyes. Wooden chairs with straight backs stand in rows across the floor. Sagging stuffed chairs and sofas lean against the walls.

On this Saturday night, about thirty patrons wander in from the bar next door, some carrying buckets of ice and beer. Four players leap to the stage for an hour-and-a-half show of short-form improvisation. Thirteen “games,” each lasting from three to ten minutes, create the show’s skeleton; audience suggestions and the players’ imaginations become the show’s flesh. Some games are versions of charades; some are word plays; some are spontaneous scenes with characters and a plot. The audience provides locations for the action, objects for pantomime, letters for word play, or accents for a character’s speech. The cast, three men and one woman, includes two seasoned players and two newcomers. All learned their craft from Semelsberger.

Semelsberger, thirty-nine, was working as a corporate trainer in Chicago and thought some acting lessons might help her shake the public-speaking jitters. With her dad’s encouragement, she signed up for an improvisational theater class. “I realized, ‘Oh, my God, this is what I want to do.’ I was addicted.” For the next seven years, she studied with some of improv’s masters, including Del Close, Charna Halpern, and Nick Napier. She started a show and, she says, within three months it had a consistent audience of about sixty.

Improv is to Chicago what jazz is to New Orleans. It was born in the Windy City, and flyers for improv groups are plentiful there. But, says Semelsberger, the thriving scene was both exhilarating and overwhelming.

“It had gotten so big in Chicago, with Second City and ImprovOlympics. People were coming through like cattle. The community feeling was gone.” Plus, her adolescent daughter was entering high school, and Semelsberger wanted a safer school district. So in 2000, she returned to Fort Mill, South Carolina, where she had gone to high school.

“There was no improv here when I got here,” she says. If she was going to feed her passion, Semelsberger was going to have to build a cast from scratch. That winter she taught her first improv class, to about five students, at the old Perch Theater on Central Avenue.

In recent months, Semelsberger’s enrollment has grown to two weekly classes of more than a dozen each. Some, like Semelsberger, are looking for courage in public speaking. Many are aspiring actors honing their talent; a few are just having fun. But, says Semelsberger, whether they know it or not, they will be exposed to a whole
way of living.

“Improv changed my life, 100 percent.”

Several students in Semelsberger’s Monday-night intermediate class have just committed improv’s cardinal sin. A student began a scene about euthanasia with a bizarre statement. His teammates have responded with confused stares. Semelsberger, her auburn hair in pigtails held back by a red bandanna, stops the action.

“If someone says something you think is weird, you don’t look at him like ‘What the f—? I’m not playing with him!’ Your first responsibility, even before the audience is pleased, is that each of you is taken care of. That’s what we do as professionals: Make each other feel safe.”

That concept of “yes/and,” as opposed to “no/because,” is fundamental to improv theater.

“Whatever anybody says on stage, I will agree to it and support it and give back,” says Zach Ward. “Love everything that your partners do on stage.”

Ward, twenty-eight, is the executive director of DSI Comedy Theater, which has troupes in Chicago and Chapel Hill. Since he started teaching classes and presenting shows in Chapel Hill in 2001, Ward has built a successful theater there, producing seven shows a week, each with an average audience of seventy-five. He says that building trust through unconditional support is one of the many basics of improv that translate into life skills.

“If you are really learning to improvise, then you will not be able to go to work the next day and relate to people in the same way. It will change your life.”

In fact, short-form improv grew out of an experiment in social behavior. Viola Spolin, considered the mother of improvisational theater, began her career as a social worker in Chicago’s slums in the 1920s. In the 1940s, while teaching drama through the Works Progress Administration, she drew from the rapport-building activities she had used with immigrant and inner city children to create theater games. Those games, later published as Improvisation for the Theater, became the foundation for improv.

The challenge in improv is to serve the group. “Improv does not accept a world in which divas rule,” says Ward. “I have personally let go of some of the funniest people because they could not embrace the community aspect. Entitlement as an individual won’t find success here.”

The community aspect exists only when everyone is paying attention. Semelsberger likens it to baseball. “When the ball’s coming at you, you look to see where everybody’s at so you know where to throw. Where are the outs?”

David Wilson, a professor in the Department of Software and Information Systems at UNC-Charlotte, joined Semelsberger’s class eighteen months ago. A frequent performer with Extreme Improv, he says that when a group is working as a unit, the balls from left-field can be the most satisfying for an audience. “What tickles and delights you is when you have that huge leap and you don’t know how it will fit in and somehow, the players manage to draw it together.”

Responding to audience suggestions, Nikki Frank and Austen DiPalma are improvising a television cooking show. Frank is stirring soup while DiPalma makes talk-show host comments about its delicious fragrance. Suddenly Frank peers into her imaginary pot. “Look! A baby!” She reaches in and lifts it out. DiPalma raises both hands in front of him in a gesture that says “Whoa!”

“It’s not mine!” he exclaims. The audience roars with laughter.

Improv theater is like the nursery rhyme about the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead: When it’s good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad, it’s horrid.

“I’ve been in some shows where I felt like we should return the money people paid us to see it,” says Frank, who began performing with Extreme Improv three years ago.

What makes it work? Good players, of course. Masterful improvisers are imaginative, quick-witted, and have a broad range of experiences to draw from. They “react in the moment,” says Semelsberger, are “thinking and watching the whole time,” and “leave things open, so there’s room to play.”

Skilled improvisers, adds Wilson, “make strong choices”—like Frank and the baby in the soup. “As a scene progresses, you need to heighten the stakes to keep it interesting.”

But improv theater is an audience-participation art form, so ultimately a successful show depends on a good audience, as well. A few weeks ago, the crowd at Charlotte Comedy Theater drank a few too many beers at Joe’s Raw Bar. Every suggestion—movie titles, objects, actions—came from the bathroom or the bedroom. After the first thirty minutes or so, the show degenerated from funny to stupid.

“One drunk [jerk] can ruin a whole night,” says Ward. He credits the success of his company, DSI Comedy Theater, in part to the development of a community of audience members. “It’s not only educating performers, but educating the audience about this new art form.”

Still, says Ward, a seasoned troupe can turn even the crudest audience idea into gold. “I’ve seen someone take the suggestion of a vibrator and create the most sexually offensive scene you’ve ever seen, and I’ve also seen it taken into a scene about the breakdown of domestic bliss and our dependence on things outside of a relationship to find happiness. An experienced team can make something significant out of it.”

An improv troupe is a social grab bag. “We get accountants, architects, waiters. They never would have met each other otherwise,” says Semelsberger. A recent Monday night improv class included, in addition to UNCC professor Wilson, an accountant, a comic book artist, an aspiring actress, and the owner of a film production company. All were working toward a common goal. “People are so segregated in their jobs,” she adds. “We need to realize that we are part of the same organism.”

Occasionally Semelsberger, who by day is a trainer for New Concepts in Marketing, gets to bring improv’s philosophy into the business world. Several months ago, an independent corporate trainer who had taken one of Semelsberger’s courses invited her to help with the merger of two companies. “The companies had two different styles—cowboy versus strait-laced. We did improv sketches making fun of both sides, both styles. Then we had them work together in games, using both qualities, to learn to work with each other’s resources and gifts. We said, ‘See? This is what your company can be.’ And they were laughing and laughing. When those endorphins are going, you’re really open to new ideas.”